The Covid-19 pandemic had barely begun when VBI Vaccines, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, initiated their search for a universal coronavirus vaccine.
It was March 2020, and while most pharmaceutical companies were scrambling to initiate vaccine programs which specifically targeted the SARS-CoV-2 virus, VBI’s executives were already keen to look at the broader picture.
Having observed the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks over the last two decades, Jeff Baxter, CEO of VBI Vaccines, was aware that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be the last coronavirus to move from an animal host into humans. “It's absolutely apparent that the future is to create a vaccine which gives more broad protection against not only pre-existing coronaviruses, but those that will potentially make the leap into humans in future,” says Baxter.
It was a prescient decision. Over the last two years, more biotechs and pharma companies have joined the search to find a vaccine which might be able to protect against all coronaviruses, along with dozens of academic research groups. Last September, the US National Institutes of Health dedicated $36 million specifically to pan-coronavirus vaccine research, while the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has earmarked $200 million towards the effort.
Until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be
theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. But then a groundbreaking study renewed optimism.
The emergence of new variants of Covid-19 over the past year, particularly the highly mutated Omicron variant, has added greater impetus to find broader spectrum vaccines. But until October 2021, the very concept of whether it might be theoretically possible to vaccinate against multiple coronaviruses remained an open question. After all, scientists have spent decades trying to develop a similar vaccine for influenza with little success.
But then a groundbreaking study from renowned virologist Linfa Wang, who runs the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, provided renewed optimism.
Wang found that eight SARS survivors who had been injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine had neutralising antibodies in their blood against SARS, the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants of SARS-CoV-2, and five other coronaviruses which reside in bats and pangolins. He concluded that the combination of past coronavirus infection, and immunization with a messenger RNA vaccine, had resulted in a wider spectrum of protection than might have been expected.
“This is a significant study because it showed that pre-existing immunity to one coronavirus could help with the elicitation of cross-reactive antibodies when immunizing with a second coronavirus,” says Kevin Saunders, Director of Research at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute in North Carolina, which is developing a universal coronavirus vaccine. “It provides a strategy to perhaps broaden the immune response against coronaviruses.”
In the next few months, some of the first data is set to emerge looking at whether this kind of antibody response could be elicited by a single universal coronavirus vaccine. In April 2021, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, launched a Phase I clinical trial of their vaccine, with a spokesman saying that it was successful, and the full results will be announced soon.
The Walter Reed researchers have already released preclinical data, testing the vaccine in non-human primates where it was found to have immunising capabilities against a range of Covid-19 variants as well as the original SARS virus. If the Phase I trial displays similar efficacy, a larger Phase II trial will begin later this year.
Two different approaches
Broadly speaking, scientists are taking two contrasting approaches to the task of finding a universal coronavirus vaccine. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, VBI Vaccines – who plan to launch their own clinical trial in the summer – and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute – who are launching a Phase I trial in early 2023 – are using a soccer-ball shaped ferritin nanoparticle studded with different coronavirus protein fragments.
VBI Vaccines is looking to elicit broader immune responses by combining SARS, SARS-CoV-2 and MERS spike proteins on the same nanoparticle. Dave Anderson, chief scientific officer at VBI Vaccines, explains that the idea is that by showing the immune system these three spike proteins at the same time, it can help train it to identify and respond to subtle differences between coronavirus strains.
The Duke Human Vaccine Institute is utilising the same method, but rather than including the entire spike proteins from different coronaviruses, they are only including the receptor binding domain (RBD) fragment from each spike protein. “We designed our vaccine to focus the immune system on a site of vulnerability for the virus, which is the receptor binding domain,” says Saunders. “Since the RBD is small, arraying multiple RBDs on a nanoparticle is a straight-forward approach. The goal is to generate immunity to many different subgenuses of viruses so that there will be cross-reactivity with new or unknown coronaviruses.”
But the other strategy is to create a vaccine which contains regions of the viral protein structure which are conserved between all coronavirus strains. This is something which scientists have tried to do for a universal influenza vaccine, but it is thought to be more feasible for coronaviruses because they mutate at a slower rate and are more constrained in the ways that they can evolve.
DIOSynVax, a biotech based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, announced in a press release earlier this month that they are partnering with CEPI to use their computational predictive modelling techniques to identify common structures between all of the SARS coronaviruses which do not mutate, and thus present good vaccine targets.
Stephen Zeichner, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia Medical Center, has created an early stage vaccine using the fusion peptide region – another part of the coronavirus spike protein that aids the virus’s entry into host cells – which so far appears to be highly conserved between all coronaviruses.
So far Zeichner has trialled this version of the vaccine in pigs, where it provided protection against a different coronavirus called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which he described as very promising as this virus is from a different family called alphacoronaviruses, while SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus.
“If a betacoronavirus fusion peptide vaccine designed from SARS-CoV-2 can protect pigs against clinical disease from an alphacoronavirus, then that suggests that an analogous vaccine would enable broad protection against many, many different coronaviruses,” he says.
The road ahead
But while some of the early stage results are promising, researchers are fully aware of the scale of the challenge ahead of them. Although CEPI have declared an aim of having a licensed universal coronavirus vaccine available by 2024-2025, Zeichner says that such timelines are ambitious in the extreme.
“I was incredibly impressed at the speed at which the mRNA coronavirus vaccines were developed for SARS-CoV-2,” he says. “That was faster than just about anybody anticipated. On the other hand, I think a universal coronavirus vaccine is more equivalent to the challenge of developing an HIV vaccine and we're 35 years into that effort without success. We know a lot more now than before, and maybe it will be easier than we think. But I think the route to a universal vaccine is harder than an individual vaccine, so I wouldn’t want to put money on a timeline prediction.”
The major challenge for scientists is essentially designing a vaccine for a future threat which is not even here yet. As such, there are no guidelines on what safety data would be required to license such a vaccine, and how researchers can demonstrate that it truly provides efficacy against all coronaviruses, even those which have not yet jumped to humans.
The teams working on this problem have already devised some ingenious ways of approaching the challenge. VBI Vaccines have taken the genetic sequences of different coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins, from publicly available databases, and inserted them into what virologists call a pseudotype virus – one which has been engineered so it does not have enough genetic material to replicate.
This has allowed them to test the neutralising antibodies that their vaccine produces against these coronaviruses in test tubes, under safe lab conditions. “We have literally just been ordering the sequences, and making synthetic viruses that we can use to test the antibody responses,” says Anderson.
However, some scientists feel that going straight to a universal coronavirus vaccine is likely to be too complex. Instead they say that we should aim for vaccines which are a little more specific. Pamela Bjorkman, a structural biologist at the California Institute of Technology, suggests that pan-coronavirus vaccines which protect against SARS-like betacoronaviruses such as SARS or SARS-CoV-2, or MERS-like betacoronaviruses, may be more realistic.
“I think a vaccine to protect against all coronaviruses is likely impossible since there are so many varieties,” she says. “Perhaps trying to narrow down the scope is advisable.”
But if the mission to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine does succeed, it will be one of the most remarkable feats in the annals of medical science. In January, US chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci urged for greater efforts to be devoted towards this goal, one which scientists feel would be the biological equivalent of the race to develop the first atomic bomb
“The development of an effective universal coronavirus vaccine would be equally groundbreaking, as it would have global applicability and utility,” says Saunders. “Coronaviruses have caused multiple deadly outbreaks, and it is likely that another outbreak will occur. Having a vaccine that prevents death from a future outbreak would be a tremendous achievement in global health.”
He agrees that it will require creativity on a remarkable scale: “The universal coronavirus vaccine will also require ingenuity and perseverance comparable to that needed for the Manhattan project.”
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.